A freshly dug grave was waiting for the 18-year-old man when gang members lured him to a Maryland park nearly three years ago. They choked him until he passed out. They took turns slashing him with machetes and knives until he died. Then they severed his head, ripped out his heart and tossed his dismembered body parts into the grave.
The March 2017 killing in Wheaton Regional Park was part of a wave of violence that federal authorities pinned on members of Mara Salvatrucha street gang, or MS-13 for short. A May 2019 indictment charged 22 members and associates of MS-13 “cliques” in Maryland in at least six murders, five attempted murders, a string of assaults, drug trafficking and other crimes.
One of those defendants, 22-year-old Miguel Lopez Abrego, was sentenced Friday in Baltimore to 25 years in prison for his role in the teen's brutal killing in Wheaton, a Washington, D.C., suburb.
“The crime was unspeakable in its violence and savagery,” U.S. District Judge James Bredar said before agreeing to the sentence jointly recommended by prosecutors and a defense lawyer.
The hearing was the latest in a recent string of guilty pleas and prison sentences in the case. Sixteen of the 22 defendants in last year’s superseding indictment have pleaded guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy. Three others charged in an earlier indictment also have pleaded guilty. Since mid-January, eight of them have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 32 years. Six defendants await a trial scheduled to start on June 1.
The Justice Department calls MS-13 one of the top transnational organized crime threats in the U.S. and has mounted an aggressive effort to dismantle the gang. President Donald Trump has blamed the gang’s violence and growth on lax immigration policies.
U.S. Attorney Robert Hur, Maryland's top federal prosecutor, said MS-13 is a well-organized gang with funds and people flowing between its strongholds in El Salvador and the U.S.
“They are a true transnational gang that federal law enforcement is uniquely positioned to try to attack,” he said.
Maryland, which has a high concentration of immigrants from El Salvador, is at the center of the federal crackdown. Hur said the District of Maryland prosecuted more defendants in MS-13 cases than any other federal district from 2017 through 2018 — a total of 77 prosecutions.
“They really, in a lot of ways, prey on their own immigrant community," Hur said. “Their business model in El Salvador is extortion. That's how they continue to exert such significant control over El Salvador's economy. And that's what they do here in Maryland, as well.”
More than five months passed before law-enforcement officers recovered the 18-year-old man's body from the grave in Wheaton Regional Park. Federal court filings identify him only as “Victim 13." No family or friends were in court Friday when the judge sentenced one of his killers.
Lopez Abrego admitted he was one of the gang members who attacked ”Victim 13″ with machetes and knifes, stabbing him more than 100 times on the evening of March 31, 2017. They suspected the teen was leaking information about the gang to rival gang members through a woman he was dating, according to prosecutors. They brought him from Annapolis, Maryland, to a secluded area of the park with the promise of a party.
The killing earned Lopez Abrego a promotion from “observation” to “chequeo,” a level just below “homeboy,” according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Clark. The prosecutor described Lopez Abrego as a “willing participant” in the slaying but not a leader who ordered or planned it.
“The way to move up in the gang is to participate in these acts of violence,” Clark said.
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Bredar called it “perverse” that one of the primary motives for the deadly ambush appeared to be that it would give younger gang members a chance to prove themselves and earn their “killing credential.”
“This was a truly depraved crime,” the judge said.
Bredar said a 25-year prison sentence for such a brutal killing may not seem “palatable” to some, but he said it reflects Lopez Abrego's lack of criminal history, acceptance of responsibility for the crime and “material differences” in his culpability compared to other defendants.
Defense attorney Elita Amato said her client's background made him a “perfect target” for MS-13 indoctrination. Lopez Abrego was 2 when his father was killed. He was still a child when his mother left him behind in El Salvador to come to the U.S. His mother already had a new family when, at age 16, he illegally entered the U.S.
“He was lonely,” Amato said, adding that the gang filled a void when he had no one to “teach him right from wrong.”
Lopez Abrego said through an interpreter that he apologizes “ for the harm that I have caused to society.”
“That’s all,” he told the judge.